When the Munich Security Conference held its inaugural meeting back in 1963, the Cold War was at its zenith. It was only two years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had shaken the world with the near miss of nuclear conflict.
In its early incarnation, the conference was a way for a small elite of a few dozen Western defense and security experts to exchange views. Back then, the prime security threat was the Soviet Union and its proxies such as East Germany, which was only a few hundred kilometers away from the Bavarian capital beyond the Iron Curtain that cut right through Germany.
Nowadays the conference, held in the sumptuous Bayerischer Hof hotel, is a much bigger beast. It has morphed into the Davos of the security and defense world.
Attending this year’s conference, which opens Friday afternoon and finishes on Sunday, are more than 600 decision-makers from the realm of international security policy, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Adabi, as well as NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and European Parliament president Martin Schultz.
This Who’s Who of global security and foreign policy will be discussing the multiplicity of security threats in the globalized world, which is facing what conference director, Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German diplomat and former ambassador to the United States, has called “boundless crises.”
Syria will, of course, be top of the agenda. In fact, many of the key international players involved in the nearly five-year war met Thursday night on the fringes of the conference. The International Syria Support Group, made up of 17 countries, including the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, said that they would push for a ceasefire in Syria to start in a week.
Mr. Kerry, speaking alongside his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, said the ceasefire plan was “ambitious” and that the real test would be whether the various parties honored their commitments.
While Syria is undoubtedly at the forefront of everyone’s minds, a myriad of other challenges face an increasingly unstable world. Tensions with Russia over Ukraine, wars in Africa and the Middle East, the refugee crisis, climate change and global pandemics will also be discussed over the weekend, both in a series of speeches and in private meetings.
“Ten years ago, all eyes would have been on one crisis, now we have half a dozen of them.”
The fact that the Ewald von Kleist peace award on Saturday night will be presented to the U.N.top climate change official, Christiana Figueres, and French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, for helping achieve a deal at the Paris Climate Conference in December is indicative of how seriously climate change is now being regarded in terms of its security threat.
Yet the very multiplicity of these crises also means that the conference has become increasingly reactive rather than proactive as a forum, with the gathered delegates forced to concentrate on current major events such as the political crisis in Ukraine and Syria.
“It is a construct of its context,” said Crispin Hawes, managing director of London-based political risk consultancy, Teneo Intelligence. “It’s not so well established that it can look past immediate issues.”
Mr. Hawes told Handelsblatt Global Edition the situation reflects the wider reality. “When you listen to defense ministers and senior security officers in governments, they do tend to talk in a much more short-term way,” he said. “They respond to the megaphone noise of the media and the population.”
The need to react to the immediate crises, he added, means it is difficult to step back and assess the long term security risks.
Christian Mölling, security policy expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, agrees that the world is in constant crisis mode. “And crisis mode always means you are acting on an adhoc basis. Strategic papers that have long terms views can wait,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Indeed, the fact that the crises seem “boundless,” can make it difficult to see the wood for the trees.
“Many important speeches have been delivered over the past 10 or 15 years in Munich.”
“Ten years ago, all eyes would have been on one crisis, now we have half a dozen of them,” Mr. Hawes argued. “The conference really isn’t designed to produce immediate resolutions; it’s meant to be a forum for discussion.”
Markus Kaim, international security expert with Berlin-based think tank the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argues that, nevertheless, the conference can have a real impact.
“You can make some criticisms that it’s an old boys’ network, that the age is too high, and that there’s only a handful of women,” Mr. Kaim told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “However, you have to remember that many important speeches have been delivered over the past 10 or 15 years in Munich.”
In 2007, for example, a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he railed against U.S. foreign policy, set the stage for Moscow’s increasingly confrontational approach in its dealings with the West.
Furthermore in 2014 a trio of speeches from German President Joachim Gauck, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized Berlin’s new commitment to meeting its foreign policy obligations.
“This year, it is particularly important,” Mr. Kaim said, pointing to the fact that the Syrian talks were held in Munich on the eve of the conference as proof of the way it can be implemented for diplomatic purposes.
“That was also the case two years ago when there was a meeting of the Ukrainian opposition and the Yanukovych regime in Munich and now it’s being used to speed up the Syrian peace process,” he added.
“In a very important way, it’s a very important global talking shop,” Mr. Mölling said. “It’s a rather important thing to have the opportunity of informal meetings, especially in these times where things are getting tougher.”
Still, the conferences, he added, cannot solve the underlying problems of the crises, which, he argued, are largely “reactions to the still ongoing political and economic globalization.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything particularly surprising, earth shaking,” said Mr. Hawes of Teneo Intelligence, “because for many other reasons many of these points for confrontation are not yet ready for resolution, and because the participants on multiple sides are not yet ready for that resolution.”
Meanwhile, the fact that the conference takes place in Germany, which during the Cold War had been the faultline of the Soviet-Western conflict, is now significant because of the increasingly important role Berlin plays in international crisis resolution.
“It’s more important than 10 or 15 years ago,” Mr. Kaim said, “because everybody is looking to Germany in good ways and bad ways.”
“Germany… is the key player of European foreign policy and the key player in Europe in general,” he added, “so it’s more than appropriate that it takes place in Germany.”
Mr. Hawes agrees that it is significant that the conference takes place in Germany. “Where else would you hold it?” he said. “You either hold it somewhere neutral or you hold it somewhere that is a real power, and Germany is a real power.”
Siobhán Dowling covers European and German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: email@example.com